Health and Science

FDA willing to fast track coronavirus vaccine before phase three trials end

Key Points
  • FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told the Financial Times he's willing to consider granting emergency authorization for a Covid-19 vaccine before clinical trials have been completed.
  • The comments come about a week after President Trump accused the FDA for intentionally moving slowly to hurt him politically.
Commissioner of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Dr. Stephen M. Hahn speaks during a news conference about the latest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) developments, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. August 23, 2020.
Erin Scott | Reuters

The chief of the Food and Drug Administration is prepared to bypass the full federal approval process in order to make a Covid-19 vaccine available as soon as possible, according to an interview in the Financial Times.

Insisting that the move would not be due to pressure from the Trump administration to fast track a vaccine, FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn told the newspaper that an emergency authorization could be appropriate before phase three clinical trials are completed if the benefits outweigh the risks.

"It is up to the [vaccine developer] to apply for authorization or approval, and we make an adjudication of their application," Hahn said. "If they do that before the end of phase three, we may find that appropriate. We may find that inappropriate, we will make a determination."

Phase three trials test a large number of participants to compare an experimental drug to standard therapies and evaluate the overall risks and benefits of the medication. 

Hahn's comments come a week after the FDA granted emergency authorization of convalescent plasma to treat hospitalized Covid-19 patients, despite concerns among some health officials that data from clinical trials was too weak to support widespread application of the treatment. That announcement came a day after President Donald Trump accused the FDA, without any evidence, of trying to hurt him politically by dragging its feet in approving new coronavirus vaccines and treatments. 

Hahn told the FT he wouldn't rush a vaccine solely to please Trump. 

"We have a convergence of the Covid-19 pandemic with the political season, and we're just going to have to get through that and stick to our core principles," Hahn said.

"This is going to be a science, medicine, data decision," he said. "This is not going to be a political decision."

Gottlieb: Vaccine for those at-risk could get emergency authorization before year-end
Gottlieb: Vaccine for those at-risk could get emergency authorization before year-end

He said emergency authorization could be used to safely make the vaccine available for use by certain groups before clinical trials are completed. 

"Our emergency use authorization is not the same as a full approval," Hahn said. "The legal, medical and scientific standard for that is that the benefit outweighs the risk in a public health emergency."

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA chief, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he's uncertain what Hahn meant.

"I'm not sure what he means by approving it earlier than when the trials are completed," Gottlieb said. "They are going to wait for these trials to read out before they can make a decision around the efficacy of these vaccines."

He said it's likely that data from phase three trials would come out in November. However, he said as the trials progress, if the results show the vaccine is very effective, that could be October.

Nevertheless, he expects the first approvals to be done on an emergency basis and targeted at groups that may be at greater risk for infection or a bad outcome.

"A full approval for the general population — when people can go to CVS and get a shot — that's really a 2021 event," Gottlieb said.

The Financial Times reported last week that the Trump administration was considering an emergency use authorization before the Nov. 3 election for an experimental coronavirus vaccine developed in the U.K. by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

At the time, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the FDA, said any reports about an emergency authorization for a vaccine prior to the election were "absolutely false." AstraZeneca said it had not discussed such a move with the U.S. government.

Already, China and Russia have each approved vaccines without waiting for the completion of phase three trials, which come with the most rigorous testing for a potential new drug. Public health officials in the U.S. and elsewhere have warned that the move could be unsafe.

The coronavirus has infected more than 5.9 million people in the U.S. as of Monday, representing about a quarter of the world's reported cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The death toll in the U.S. has reached more than 182,000.